The White Devil Theme Analysis

A mind maped summary of the key themes in the play, with relevance to AO2, AO3, and AO4, all of which are key aspects to answering exam questions.

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  • The White Devil: Themes Analysis
    • Love and Death
      • Vittoria's and Brachiano's love is an anarchic force with the sole purpose of breaking the social order.
        • Their relationship is illicit, this justifies the play cataclysmic dive into anarchy, without this factor Webster doesn't have a tragedy.
        • Dena Goldberg explains the historical and factual meaning for this illicit marriage: ''She (Vittoria) is the victim of a marriage arranged by her family in a futile effort to reverse the trend of economic decline initiated by a spendthrift father''. This interpretation is interesting as Webster details the drive behind the marriage to be of somewhat love but also flamineo's greed.
          • Goldberg also details how a Jacobean audience would feel sympathy for the adulterous Vittoria, as it is a insult to the natural order of the time for a knowledgeable, high spirited women like Vittoria to be with the silly and impotent Camillo.
        • 'Vittoria! Vittoria'
      • The two themes are intertwined, as anyone that loves in the play inevitably dies.
      • The themes love and death are also heavily linked to self-fulfilment as marriage was more of an act of trade rather than of love. The price to pay for self-fulfilment in The White Devil is enormous, as it generically equates to death.
        • It is then disturbing, (following on from the pervious point that) to see how Vittoria plans her own self-fulfilment within thirty lines of her adulterous engagement with the duke. By manipulating him to rid of their now previous 'lovers'.
      • One of the plays cruellest ironies lies within these themes, Isabella's death, even though arguably insignificant and only a dramatic device, her death is not due to her husbands love of another women but her strong infatuation for her now previous  husband.  Samuel Johnson: ''The wicked prosper and the virtuous miscarry.''
      • Love Quote as motivation for revenge, Lodovico: ' Sir I did love Brachiano's Duchess dearly.' Lodovico is furious about how Brachiano disposed of his ex-wife and then uses his love for Isabella as a motive.
        • Likewise with Flamineo's love for Zanche leads to Marcello's death.
      • Maternal love is also analysed in the play as it is completely destroyed due to the death of Isabella who had a maternal undertone for her love of Brachiano and Cornelia is destroyed by her children's deaths and atrocities.
      • Sibling love is another subtheme which provides both revenge and darker thoughts, in the 1996 RSC production the play was given an incestuous twist due to the power Flamineo exercises over Vittoria, Webster has been know to explore this dark taboo, mainly in his other famous play the Duchess of Malfi. Francisco's revenge against Brachiano is arguably due to the death of his sister however, critics have argued that Francisco was instead more concerned of how Brachiano had destroyed his property (Isabella) and was now exercising too much power over the great Duke.
    • Identity and Disguise
      • What characters represent in The White Devil is ambiguous, for example in Act 2 Scene 2 Francisco acts as a concerned indignant brother, in Act 3 he becomes a moralist, in Act 4 a scheming Machiavellian and finally disguising himself as a Moor in Act 5
      • Even the virtuous and kind natured Isabella shows an undertone of fury.
      • Most notable disguise is Flamineo's test of his sister's and lover's trust, the occurrence is similar to the love test of that in King Lear, perhaps a common notion among Jacobean play writers as it epitomises one of the core elements of a tragedy, disguise.
      • Flamineo as a master of disguise and a mercurial character.
      • The confusion and disorientation that these themes cause adds to the suspense of the unknown for the audience and what enables the events in the play to be known as tragic.
        • Critics have however argued that perhaps there isn't any meaning behind the disorientation and it is instead a case of Webster's poor characterisation of the characters.
        • Other critics have argued that it perhaps symbolises the psychological response that the general body of society felt towards the changing and revolutionary times they were witnessing.
    • Politics and Religion
      • AO4 Italy was a collection of city-states, that were ruled individually by aristocrats who were subjected and underneath the jurisdiction of the Pope. The Church had wide powers over not only spiritual matters but also civil it would interpret and amend the Canon Law which would then soon become the common civil law.
      • Arguably the most terrifying character Lodovico who is also at large with corruption spots the injustice within the first act of the play, he says 'great enemies' and details how those with political power get away with anything.
        • This corruption can be seen in Francisco's and Monticelso's alliance against Brachiano and Vittoria. The power of state and church.
      • Judges at the time based themselves on an inquisitorial system where they were free to accuse.
      • 'Knaves do grow great by being great men's apes' In effect the only way you can transgress from the constraints of social order and class, as Flamineo tries to do frequently.
      • The corruption of the Church and Religion brings forward the idea of parodies and Webster perhaps mocking Catholicism.
      • Ralph Berry: 'a depiction of a disintegrating world order'


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